The turn of April into May is always massive for eventing, with Kentucky and Badminton on consecutive weekends. This year it’s an even bigger happening, for Oliver Townend’s fantastic win statesside with Cooley Master Class puts him in line for the £255,000 Rolex Grand Slam. Other riders have managed to win two in a row of the eligible four-stars (Kentucky, Badminton, Burghley), including Townend himself in 2009. But only Pippa Funnell (2003) and Michael Jung (2016) have landed the full Slam.
Townend certainly has the horse – 2017 Burghley winner Ballaghmor Class – and the temperament to prevail this coming weekend at Badminton, having held his nerve at two of his sport’s previous big-purse occasions. In 2008 he won eventing’s then biggest prize, £100,000, at an indoor “one-off” at a stadium in Cardiff, UK, while in 2016 he landed the £30,000 series bonus of the inaugural Event Riders Masters (ERM.)
Oliver’s current storyline is further spiced by a gamble made good. Team GB no longer pays for a British contingent to fly to Kentucky, and so only by twisting his owners’ arms did Townend become our sole representative last week.
But unless you read the specialist press or eventing’s social platforms you probably won’t know about this huge excitement. The fact that two premier FEI four-stars at Lexington and Badminton happened/are happening – not to the mention the gift of the headlines now presented by Townend – hasn’t warranted a mention in a single one of the regular FEI press releases issued to thousands of media outlets.
Nor is Badminton – the single largest equestrian spectator event anywhere in the world – worthy of note on the magazine-style home page of the FEI website, though you can read plenty about last weekend’s show jumping Nations Cup at Samorin, some lifestyle stuff, features about (non-eventing) riders from emerging nations (most of whom are unlikely to win anything of note) and an article on how to clip your horse. The latter’s more natural home is surely a horse-care monthly for beginners?
The FEI has a rigid policy about what it promotes to the media and, albeit unwittingly, this gives newcomers an unbalanced message about the scope of elite equestrian sport. This has a lot to do with the FEI’s contractual obligations to Longines and to the disparate “series” that the FEI actually owns.
Anything connected to Longines’ rival watchmaker Rolex is taboo, which immediately takes the Slams in both eventing and jumping out of the equation. On top of that, from this season the eventing four-stars are no longer clustered into the “FEI Classics” series. That series originally gave a $150,000 bonus to the winner, with other decent sums down the line, but started to peter out a few years ago when HSBC dropped out as sponsor.
The FEI underwrote the Classics with a much reduced prize fund for a few years but now it is now suspended, pending “re-categorisation.” That means the FEI now has no obligation to publicize the headlining events at Lexington, Badminton, Luhmuehlen, Burghley, Pau and Adelaide. The paucity of eventing content in general suggests that the FEI tolerates rather than covets that discipline and isn’t really using its platforms to court new fans.
The Longines 10-year “Top Partner” deal certainly flattered to deceive when launched with great fanfare in 2012, amid the unceremonious dumping of the FEI’s long-time World Cup backer Rolex. It was extended recently for an undisclosed period, so we don’t really know how many more years, decades even, that everything (apart from jumping and the bits of endurance that appear to interest Longines) will have to source title sponsors for their own headline fixtures with one hand tied behind their backs.
Equestrian overwhelmingly attracts the luxury goods sector – in the recent past Hermes, Breitling, Omega, Cartier, Jaeger LeCoutre, Gucci as well as Rolex, to name but a few. Does Longines, I wonder, have any veto when a commercial rival expresses interest, even in one of the disciplines Longines is not too bothered about? Eventing must be mightily relieved Longines isn’t in the off-road vehicle business!
Contractually, the Longines name only need be attached to “other” disciplines at FEI continental championship. The sharp-eyed will have noticed that Reem Acra no longer backs the dressage World Cup, which ran sponsor-less this season for the first time. The Top Partner didn’t even lend its name to the dressage final, despite already being present in Paris as title sponsor of World Cup jumping.
And while it probably would cost it nothing, Longines’ name isn’t bolted onto the (still sponsor-less) eventing Nations Cup series, either. Though the FEI will undoubtedly publicize the three-star CICs that comprise the eventing Nations Cup because, unlike the four-stars, that is a FEI “owned” series and thereby ticks the right box. Talk about skewed priorities!
In fairness, top level eventing isn’t easy to market en bloc. With two of the six mega global events, Kentucky and Badminton, held at the start of the season, you can’t easily contrive a climactic finale in the fall.
In desperation, in 2016 the stellar international riders based in the UK – including Mark Todd and William Fox-Pitt – created their own series, the ERM, deliberately packaged for global TV with a relatively handsome prize-fund, even though the money would still be considered small change by jumping riders. Hopes were so high that top Aussie Paul Tapner even (briefly) gave up his riding career to work for it full-time.
The ERM piggy-backed onto the UK’s enviable schedule of existing CICs, so its over-heads should be reasonable. But while the riders love ERM, it’s enjoyed a very good press and provides an excellent livestream, no title sponsor seems on the horizon. I believe it is still mostly propped up by Chris and Lisa Stone, Chilli Morning’s generous owners, but surely they cannot invest open-endedly? The ERM has only expanded significantly into northern Europe this season.
The FEI let the ERM get on with it in a win-win situation for FEI HQ. If the ERM eventually takes off and flies, the FEI can probably assume ownership at a later date. If it runs out of steam, the FEI can continue to justify whatever its reasons must be for not pursuing new eventing initiatives or actively seeking sponsors for what little it already does.